Just about every company pays lip service to the value of hiring new college grads, NCG’s, but few do a great job utilizing this raw talent. To start with, few realize the true potential and why NCG hires are so important. They hire a few, sprinkle them around the company and are done. Some pay lip service to training but with training that is poorly targeted. Even fewer understand what they should be looking for in NCG’s.
Let’s start by understanding the fundamentals of hiring NCG’s and what to look for. To do this we need to look at what the downsides are to hiring experienced engineers. If your first thought is salary then you are way off base. When you go for experienced engineers you are rarely able to get the best people. The best people usually have golden handcuffs keeping them at their present company. You get the person below the best. He may be great. However, the interview often tells you less than you think. It is difficult to decide whether the candidate is the creative mind generating the great work on his resume or a following mind led by someone else. Knowledge is great but the ability to generate new knowledge and be creative in previously unexplored areas of engineering are what make great engineers.
Now consider hiring NCG’s. There are no golden handcuffs. They assume they will be relocating so they are very mobile and will go where you want them to. You stand a lot better chance of getting that brilliant, creative mind. You do have to aim you interview process in the proper direction. The interview questions must look at understanding and insight rather than memory work. I once got told that all you had to know to pass my interview was Ohm’s Law, Q=CV, and charge conservation. That’s a bit of a stretch but there is truth in it. I replied that to pass my interview you didn’t have to just know those items but they must be understood at a deep, inner, level to where they had become intuitive. Those people are rare, whether experienced or not. However, your best shot at hiring one is looking at NCG’s.
Once you have hired that rare, insightful mind, you need to make good use of it. That means training them, setting expectations, and generating the habits of great engineers. It does not mean throwing them onto a project and calling the hiring process done. What I have done in the past is put the NCG’s through a five to seven week training program. A proper training program should accomplish several major goals. First, the student must learn the basics of the tools he will use. Secondly, he must come to understand the overall framework that a design process follows. This is much like a student taking general physics in college. The classes that follow, optics, mechanics, relativity, thermodynamics, etc. are elaborations of what was taught in general physics. The general physics class acts as a framework onto which the new knowledge is placed. In the engineering world it is important that it is always understood how individual processes and engineering steps fit into the overall design process. The third item that needs to be inculcated involves a number of attitudes that make up a great engineer. These attitudes are often overlooked. With experienced engineers they either have them or they don’t. With NCG’s you stand a good chance of forming a proper view of the engineering world. These attitudes are so important I will make them the subjects of separate posts. It’s just too much to include right now. It takes a lot to get these concepts ingrained but it starts with the first design review. The training program should involve designing a small part from start to finish. It should cover more than what the engineer will work on when on a real project. It is important that the NCG develop a sense of the issues confronting others and how his work will interface to their work product. The training, if successful, ends with a design review. It can be a bit brutal since it is meant to be a reality check. For that reason it is limited to senior staff who are intimately familiar with the goals of the training process. It is this review which introduces the engineer to concepts such as why 99% is a failing grade, the limits of his decision making authority, how an engineer manages his time and resources to prevent spinning his wheels, and how to properly run a design review so that the correct objectives are achieved.
After the design review has been successfully completed, the NCG is ready to become part of a design team and commence work on his first project. The project lead can extend the basics the NCG has learned during training and concentrate on bringing him along as an engineer. The group, having a common set of values and attitudes, is stronger and more functional. During the early days, Microsoft was built on this idea. It is key that everyone be well integrated into a common culture which elevates getting the job done in a correct fashion and discourages destructive behavior. Properly done, this culture brings out creativity rather than stifling it while keeping divergent activities in check. After all, the goal is to sell a product and make money. We’re talking engineering and not science.
There is a caveat here. Life is gray. It’s all about balance. I have been focusing on new college graduates. There is also a place for the experienced engineer. When to go for experience and how to select that engineer is a topic for another post.